Morning Press: Salaries, fires, candidates, cruises, St. Helens hike

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If you were away for the weekend, catch up with these stories.

The forecast says the high might fall to 83? by Friday, but is that too far out to rely on? Check our local weather coverage.

Running down the highest local government salaries

Firefighters and police dominated last year’s list of the city of Vancouver’s 20 highest-earning employees, many of whom racked up tens of thousands of dollars in overtime.

Fire Battalion Chief Kevin Griffee beat out City Manager Eric Holmes as the city’s top-paid person, grossing $193,638 last year, of which $69,431 was overtime pay, according to salary data The Columbian obtained through a public records request.

Overtime hours pushed many midlevel employees to the summit of city pay, particularly those workers in public safety. In all, 13 firefighters, two police administrators, two police officers, two City Hall administrators and the Public Works director made the most money in the city.

Vancouver Fire Chief Joe Molina and Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain say this is business as usual: Police and firefighters are collecting mountains of overtime — in some cases amounting to half their annual salaries or more — because their departments require minimum staffing levels to function. When people aren’t available to work, substitutes must be called in, and they’re paid overtime for extra hours.

Last year, maintaining around-the-clock minimum staffing at the fire department required 28,444 hours of overtime, costing about $1.48 million, Molina said. (Training and other employment opportunities brought the department’s total overtime spending to $1.9 million.)

The most expensive part of a fire department isn’t going to a fire, Molina said. It’s the cost of having people and equipment at the city’s 10 fire stations ready to deploy within 90 seconds, 24 hours a day. This requires 40 people on duty at all times, which is the driver of overtime, he said.

“They’re just sitting there like a cocked weapon,” he said. “That call at 2 in the morning when somebody needs us — in an average of 5 minutes, a fire engine pulls up with three highly trained individuals ready to take care of your heart attack. … That doesn’t happen by accident.”

Firefighting crews earn their pay over holiday weekend

Late Saturday evening, exploding fireworks started a fire in a field below the annual fireworks display at the Fort Vancouver National Site. An orange glow could be seen during the 25-minute televised show.

The wooden spires that surround the Fort Vancouver replica had been hosed down by the Vancouver Fire Department before the show. The whole area had also been mowed and raked to prevent fire. And, the pyrotechnicians deployed by Western Display, the Canby, Ore., contractor that puts on the fort’s show, insulates each individual firework shell with tin foil before packing them into the launch chamber.

A fire truck stationed beside the launch pad just north of Pearson’s runway sprayed down the blaze, briefly pausing the show. Around 10:45 p.m., the fire was reportedly extinguished, according to a witness.

Larger shells were used this year, said Cara Cantonwine, program director at the Fort Vancouver National Trust, to make even bigger booms than years’ past.

Columbian reporter Jessica Prokop, who was watching the show with her mom, said the field caught on fire about 10 minutes into the show.

“It grew pretty quickly,” she said. “They just kept on going with the show, which I thought was odd.”

When the show paused some people started to leave, but there was no major panic, Prokop said. “I think most people were confused about why it paused and then the abrupt ending.”

Dry, hot and windy conditions left local firefighters scrambling throughout the day as they put out fire after fire. But none were likely viewed by quite as many people as the fire at Fort Vancouver; the celebration at the national historic site draws thousands of people each year.

Candidates for council chair make their own cases

For three of the five candidates for Clark County council chair, the race for the top seat seems to be all about distancing themselves from the current administration.

During a meeting Friday with The Columbian’s editorial board, three chair candidates — Jeanne Stewart, Republican, Mike Dalesandro, Democrat, and Marc Boldt, Independent — spent a large part of the discussion trying to set themselves apart from sitting Councilors and chair candidates David Madore and Tom Mielke.

Neither Madore nor Mielke, both of whom are Republicans, attended Friday’s meeting.

All five are running for the new leadership position created by a home-rule charter approved by Clark County voters last November. The chair is the only position on the county council elected at-large, and will be responsible for leading meetings, as well as representing the council as its spokesperson.

The five candidates will appear on the Aug. 4 primary ballot, and the top two finishers will advance to the Nov. 3 general election, regardless of party.

River cruises a booming addition to tourism industry

The Columbia River, the Northwest’s great resource for commerce, recreation, and energy, is emerging as a tourist destination for ship-bound travelers in pursuit of new sightseeing and historical experiences. That’s good news for Vancouver, which stands to gain visitors and business as a Portland metro-area gateway to the Columbia-Snake corridor.

The Vancouver-berthed American Empress, now in its second year of weeklong Columbia and Snake river cruises, has sold out most of its 223-passenger capacity for its runs from mid-July to mid-October. Because of that demand, the ship’s owners recently added two more cruises going into November.

John Waggoner, chairman and CEO of American Queen Steamboat Co., the Memphis, Tenn.-based operator of the American Empress, said passenger count is up by 30 percent from last year.

“Even for next year, six trips are already sold out,” he said.

Another Columbia River cruise boat, the 120-passenger Queen of the West paddleboat, which is berthed in Portland, also is enjoying strong sales. Ship owner American Cruise Lines of Guilford, Conn., plans to introduce a second boat, with room for 150 passengers, to the Columbia next year, said Charles Robertson, the company’s president. That boat will have larger staterooms than the 20-year-old Queen of the West, he said.

“We’re pleased with the operation overall, for sure,” Robertson said.

Passengers, largely from outside the Northwest, say they love the beauty and diversity of the Columbia, and the farms, forests and small communities on its shores.

“It’s fabulous,” he said. “Most people don’t know about it.”

Guided hikes offer glimpse into volcano’s crater

WINDY RIDGE — Looking into the crater of Mount St. Helens, it can be difficult to grasp the scale of the massive geologic amphitheater.

That’s true even from the closest vantage points. Peter Frenzen, the Mount St. Helens monument scientist, helps put things in perspective.

Frenzen points out that the older lava dome inside the crater dwarfs Seattle’s Space needle. The volcano’s newer lava dome, formed between 2004 and 2008, reaches higher than the Empire State Building. And the entire mile-wide crater is large enough to encircle all of downtown Portland.

There’s another feature inside the crater that’s often overlooked in this active volcano. It’s also a relative rarity: a glacier that’s growing in size, not shrinking. The Crater Glacier, which forms a ring around both lava domes, continues to slowly lurch northward toward the crater’s mouth.

The young ice formation underscores the ever-changing nature of Mount St. Helens and its surrounding landscape.

“The world is not stable. It’s a temporary thing,” Frenzen said. “This is a place where it’s really kind of in your face.”

Later this summer, the Mount St. Helens Institute will offer guided hikes featuring up-close views of the glacier and the inside of the crater. The Crater Glacier View Climb takes participants close to the crater rim on the mountain’s north side, a destination no public trail reaches.

The institute has offered the guided hike as part of an overnight trip in 2013 and 2014. But this is the first time participants can see the Crater Glacier up close on a single-day hike.

The cost of the daylong trip — $195 per person — isn’t cheap. But paid excursions such as the Crater Glacier View Climb help pay for other programs and activities the Mount St. Helens Institute offers, said Ray Yurkewycz, the nonprofit’s director of operations.